Editorial: Thank Goodness for Small Favors

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It might seem unnecessary or even silly to applaud government regulators for handing down a common-sense decision, but sanity should never be taken for granted in the realm of U.S. space-technology export policy. Which is why the U.S. State Department deserves at least some credit for exempting Virgin Galactic from having to obtain export licenses to fly non-U.S. citizens aboard its SpaceShipTwo suborbital space vehicle, now in testing.

SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry paying passengers to the edge of space for breathtaking views and a microgravity experience, is a highly sophisticated piece of machinery; there’s little question that sending it or its technical design specifications abroad would require licensing under State’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. This could complicate the company’s long-range plans to establish an overseas operation.

But Virgin Galactic’s near-term plans are centered on Spaceport America in New Mexico, where the company hopes to begin commercial operations perhaps next year. While it says it already has a substantial backlog of ticket-holders, a company like this can ill afford any sort of access barriers to a large segment of its prospective customer base, especially in the current economy. Having to obtain export licensing approval to train and then fly non-U.S. citizens aboard SpaceShipTwo would amount to just that.

One export-battle-scarred industry official, speaking of State’s ruling, drew an analogy to air travel, saying, “I’ve flown on a lot of 747s but I still cannot build one.”

747s don’t go into space, of course, nor do passengers have to train to fly on one, but the analogy remains perfectly apt. In the export control world, where items like nuts and bolts can be treated like weapons simply because they are destined for use on a satellite, such intuitive logic does not always prevail. So when it does, it’s worth noting.